Joshua Penduck writes: The following is a review and critique of Charlie Bell’s book Queer Holiness: The Gift of LGBTQI People to the Church. It will be divided into four blog posts (though a complete version of the review can be found here: Review-of-Charlie-Bell-Queer-Holiness).
- The first part is an introduction to Queer Holiness, plus the beginnings of an exploration for the implicated trajectories the book seems to make, or at least opening the ground for.
- The second part is an analysis of the problems with the rhetorical strategy Bell makes in his book, namely polemic, and why he is unsuccessful in the use of such a strategy.
- The third part then returns to the proposal raised in the first part, namely that something has gone wrong with Bell’s argument. This explores the problems of Bell’s use of Scripture, the Fall, and understanding of revelation.
- The fourth and final part will respond to one of the key questions which Bell raises, namely, considering our developing scientific knowledge of same-sex attraction, why God would permit it? Diverging from Bell’s own answer, this section seeks to place the issue within a wider revelatory context.
Though the reasons for the extensive nature of this review will (hopefully) become apparent when reading, one reason can be clarified in advance: Bell’s book is in many ways paradigmatic for crystalising the arguments and problems with the revisionist position in the Church of England. As such, it is written with a view to a wider debate and the need for an extensive, coherent, and systematic response.
It’s not easy being a conservative on matters of sexuality in the 21st Century West—especially if you used to be a liberal. One feels out-of-place. A strange, uncomfortable disjunction between sociopolitical and theological views sometimes feels like a widening internal chasm. If, like me, that is your perspective, you may find yourself hopeful when approaching an author who claims to be able to bridge this chasm—that the Bible, after all, does make positive space for same-sex sexual activity. In the past I have been frequently disappointed when such claims were made. Indeed, it is in reading them that this once-liberal has become conservative (or ‘orthodox/catholic’, whatever the lingo may be). I found the claims made were found to be hermeneutically faulty or historically naive; alternatively, they would dismantle one theological loci to make space for a positive reappraisal, but thereby needing to make piecemeal restructuring of the whole dogmatic architecture.
Far more convincing, therefore, were those Queer theologies that simply did away with classical dogmatics as traditionally understood (for example, Susannah Cornwall or Marcella Althaus-Reid)—at least their theological social imaginary was internally coherent. Nevertheless, the hope does not die. With this in mind, when author, blogger, activist and priest Charlie Bell claimed that his book Queer Holiness: The Gift of LGBTQI People to the Church responded to the issues I had raised in my open letter to Bishop Stephen Croft, I approached the book with a sense of promise. Perhaps at last I need not feel like a resident alien?
Bell makes some great claims for the Bible:
The Bible is of God and from God, and God owes us the clarity we demand no more than he owes us anything else. God is Truth, and Christ is the Word of God—this truth has been revealed in the scriptures and continues to be revealed in the work of the Holy Spirit throughout the ages. This revelation must be—by nature—concordant—and it is for this reason that we must be constantly alert to the work of the Spirit and willing to wrestle with scripture, placing it into dialogue with our knowledge and understanding of the world. (220-1)
On the surface, there is not a single line I could disagree with. Yet when we scratch that surface just a little, the book reveals a disjunction. It’s hinted in that line ‘continues to be revealed.’ In the context of the rest of the book that has a far greater weight than would appear in the surrounding sentence. Indeed, one could even make a key structural node to Bell’s approach. This is hinted at in the opening pages of the book:
This book has a simple premise—that however much we might know our Bible, if we exclude human experience, science and reason from the way we read and interpret that Bible, we not only do a poor job of interpretation, but in so doing fail to take the Bible seriously on its own terms… The life of God revealed in scripture is one of narrative and of being alongside humanity—one in which the Son of God Himself became flesh and dwelt among us, and yet still we rejected Him. We don’t appear to have learnt. (13)
It’s the last sentence that struck me most. An astute reader of the Scriptures would say, ‘Of course we haven’t learnt. That’s the point.’ It’s those two terms, ’continuing to be revealed’ and ‘don’t appear to have learnt’, which when delved into separate the whole of Bell’s theological worldview from my own.
Apologies. I’m getting ahead of myself. I haven’t even managed to tell you what Bell’s argument is! Let’s explore…
For Bell, Scripture is not encountered in a vacuum. It is ‘never about something abstract’ (20), but rather is read in the flux and change of the reality ‘here below’ (to quote Cardinal Newman). Furthermore, doctrine—the teachings of the church—is practically minded, in the sense that ‘it is an overwhelming, all embracing, total reorientation of our whole lives to God’ (ibid). Despite that flux, the hierarchical structuring of doctrine nevertheless centres on the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, ‘recorded’ in Scripture, of a world ‘saved through Christ and yet a world that remains beset by sin and death’ (ibid).
The purpose of this is, in part, the flourishing of human dignity—‘that which points to the life of Christ in God’. The Holy Spirit works throughout the world to encourage and drive this flourishing—something which is not static and bounded within ecclesial or even a Christian orbit. One could read Bell’s argument as a pneumatological ‘unfolding’ of creational potential.
This is invoked as the glue which holds together his quasi-Hookerian ‘scripture, tradition, and reason’ triad as the lens through which he approaches divine revelation. Because of this, the Scriptures should be read alongside the sciences. Christian theology in the main ‘reinterpreted’ the creation accounts of Genesis to incorporate the findings of evolutionary science, for example.
Accordingly, theology should thereby reinterpret certain ‘texts of terror’ in the Scriptures to coincide with the findings of the sciences and science-humanity hybrids such as psychology and sociology. The findings of evolutionary science could be incorporated because of an ‘appeal to a hermeneutic that looks to the overarching narrative of scripture rather than simplistic notions built on particular texts’ (49). The same approach can be found regarding sexuality. That overarching narrative becomes vital for approaching ethics:
It is important to reiterate that God does not bless everything, and this includes things in the area of sex, sexuality and relationships. The biblical record in this regard is genuinely clear: God does not bless abusive relationships, does not bless the subjugation of women, does not bless infidelity and does not bless coercive sexual behaviour. The Bible is clear in this regard because the entire canon of scripture points in this direction—through books of different genres, eras, and audiences. (52)
The texts regarding same-sex sexual activity should be interpreted through this trajectory. The ‘hermeneutical key is Christ Himself’ (44) who comes to fulfil rather than abolish the law. And what is the fulfilling of the law? In a quasi-echo of Augustine, Bell argues that it is Love—a Love that manifests itself in the justice-drenched, embodied life of Jesus. It is this love-based, human-flourishing-releasing trajectory which stops the Bible from being swamped into the potential relativism of scientific findings with which it is in dialogue. The Bible ‘guides’ (63) our interpretation of human knowledge.
Bell takes us into these scientific and psychological findings. Critiquing a dualism which separates a person’s acts and ontology, he argues:
It is deeply flawed to imagine that one’s being—which includes sexual desire, and longing for relationship—is entirely separate from acting on such feelings, and we know from basic psychological knowledge that being prevented from acting on some of the most human of feelings—most particularly when this is enforced rather than freely chosen—is detrimental to mental health (and even physical health) and indeed to the ability of individuals to play their full part in society. Worse still is the total repression of one’s thoughts—the denial of even thinking a particular way, let alone acting upon it. (58)
The Church has forced this kind of repression on the LGBTQI community—and still does. Such repression causes such evil consequences as psychological breakdown and suicide. It’s not that Bell is arguing for a complete release of all sexual instincts—‘it is not always right to act on innate desires, even if those desires form part of one’s psychological make-up’—as many are ‘abusive, predatory, paedophilic or destructive’ (63) and thereby dehumanizing. But according to Bell, repressing humanizing innate sexualities has the possibility of leading to great evils (such as enforced celibacy leading to the abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church) (67). For a more recent example of this, one just needs to think of the unfolding Mike Pilavachi case.
Secular work on human flourishing, on the other hand, is a better—and for Bell, a more biblical—model:
[It] looks at the whole person—both as an entire individual and as someone in relationship, in community. It is not enough to point to specific elements—each element forms part of an interconnected whole. (79)
For Bell, the scientific record explains why repression of non-heterosexual sexual orientation is wrong:
- ‘that sexual variation is normal, and that there are clear exceptions to the XY binary genetics’;
- ‘that homosexual activity is found throughout nature’;
- ‘that in human, homosexuality forms part of a variation in sexual lives and that sexual orientation is not a choice but an innate part of the mature human personality, with some genetic and some developmental environmental factors involved (as in almost all human traits)’;
- ‘that sexual orientation cannot be changed through the volition of the individual concerned’;
- ‘that great psychological damage can be done to LGBTQI people if attempts are made to split apart their identity’;
- ‘that LGBTQI people can and do live lives which are equivalent in terms of many different measures of human flourishing to those who are straight’;
- ‘that the greatest challenge to LGBTQI flourishing is prejudice from without.’ (74-5)
Each of these bullet-points are referenced—and the references are worth looking at!
With this in mind, Bell turns to the arguments of his opponents (we’ll explore this more fully later). Alongside critiquing such groups as Side B Christians, he presents some harrowing stories of the impact conservative exclusion had on several LGBTQI and heterosexual Christians (102-3, 128-9). He argues—rightly—that ‘a church in which openness about LGBTQI matters is not only frowned upon but actively shunned, however unconsciously, is a church that is failing to “equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4.12). He then adds an empirically untrue statement—‘and a church which is bound to fail’. It appears that many of the most successful churches have unfortunately managed to get along quite well without addressing matters about LGBTQI people!
In a book that vents ire in multiple directions, he is especially critical of those bishops who in private are deeply supportive of clergy in same-sex relationships yet in public are either conservative or are uncritical of the Church of England’s current teaching. He notes the ‘crippling levels of fear’ that exist in the episcopate, when after the Bishop of Grantham’s outing ‘not a single other gay bishop came out publicly to show solidarity or support him’ (122). Bell is withering towards the strange solution of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney, which considers masturbation as ‘the best of two evils’—masturbation being ‘a key example of sexual gratification without any relational aspect’ (96). He rightly exposes such vile language used by the Primate of Nigeria referring to homosexuality as a ‘virus’ (153, 186).
In Part III, Bell turns his eyes to practical solutions. He spends some time reiterating the arguments of Clare Herbert’s Towards a Theology of Same-Sex Marriage. This argues that same-sex marriage is a legitimate development of the classical understanding of marriage, which can be summed up in the line, ‘It is not the role of the Church to ‘own’ marriage, but to witness—or recognise—it’ (179). This means reconsidering the importance, or at least interpretation of procreation, and rethinking the Christ-and-his-Church model to not be around gender roles. Because the idea that there has been ‘one single understanding of marriage throughout Christian history is quite clearly nonsense’ (21), this means we should be able to revise our understanding according to contemporary norms grounded in science and experience. For example, although Bell does not mention this, the introduction of same-sex marriage has been associated with a significant reduction in the rate of attempted suicide rate of LGBT youth—a statistic that should give all those who are conservative on these matters pause for thought.
Yet Bell is—rightly, given his premises—not satisfied with a mere development of marriage to include same-sex couples. After a chapter exploring a eucharistic ‘open table’ ecclesiology, he gives a series of hints that the impact of LGBTQI people goes beyond the somewhat bourgeois marital inclusion model. He is (somewhat understandably) wary of the expectation for all clergy ‘to be forced into civil partnerships if they are living with a partner’ (205). He seems to suggest that the church must come to terms with the reality that ‘not all sexual behaviour is described or experienced in the context of a long-term, stable relationship’ (208), and questions ‘whether we can quite so easily roundly reject’ such an idea. He goes further: ‘the immediate response to any argument that posits “the right place for sex is within marriage” is to ask the simple question: why?…Whether sex must always be relational—and whether that relationality, if it is required, must take a particular form—is a key question for contemporary culture’ (210). Further: ‘It is quite simply unacceptable that the Church of England’s thinking and position on marriage and sex appears to primarily focus on what LGBTQI people cannot do’ (211). Although I agree with this last quote, I perhaps agree with it from a very different perspective.
Building on such scattered statements throughout the end of the book, the suggestion seems to be that the restriction of sex within marriage—whether classically understood, or a ‘developmental’ notion which incorporates same-sex couples—should begin to be considered as one option amongst several for the church. Indeed, considering the unexpected relativising of his prior argument for relational sex, and the hints given regarding the sexual revolution and the need to recognise that sex can be fun (60), as well as the emphasis on listening to the cultures (not just the experience) of the LGBTQI community (142), one can see an argument opening for the church coming to terms with some forms of hook-up culture—as long as they are not abusive, subjugating, unfaithful or coercive. This is hardly a slippery slope argument—one just needs to see the theology undergirding the ethical development of the Metropolitan Congregation over the past five decades to see it is quite feasible for other churches to go in a similar direction. After all, the kind of arguments made by Bell in Queer Holiness are reminiscent of arguments made by Metropolitan theologians decades ago; look at the Metropolitan beliefs today to see how Bell’s arguments could be used.
For example, one begins to wonder what ‘unfaithful’ means—is it about pure monogamy or is it about consent? After all, a polyamorous theologian like Paul Tillich did not consider his open marriage ‘unfaithful’. We’re not too far away from the arguments made in Althaus-Reid’s radical essay The Queer God. When this is combined with quotes such as the following …
The corollary is not that God has changed his mind—far from it—but that God is leading us ever closer to His heart in His continual revelation in the world. It is not God who has been wrong—it is us—and yet we continue to refuse him (182)
…one cannot help but wonder whether this allows in principle the sacralisation of contemporary Western culture.
Something has gone wrong
It is here that this implicit argument takes an interesting turn. Whereas previously there could have been a tenuous claim to theological development—i.e. the extension of the institution of marriage to incorporate same-sex couples—we are now in a place where the position of the church regarding sexual ethics almost exactly coincides with the beliefs and sexual norms in contemporary British society. I’m not saying that Bell is arguing for the sacralisation of these new norms (though I also cannot be sure from the text alone that he is not). I am rather observing that it is difficult to see how one can not argue from this that the logical conclusion is such a sacralisation. This means one of four things:
- Contrary to Bell’s assertions, God has ‘changed God’s mind’, or at least has ‘learnt’ more;
- Christian views of sexuality always have been, broadly speaking, relativistic to the ‘host culture’ within certain revealed bounds;
- Divine intention for sexuality through progressive revelation has coincided almost exactly with British liberal values of the 21st Century, meaning that Christianity-rejecting secular Britain is the closest human society has ever been to ‘what God wants’ regarding sexuality;
- Something has gone wrong with Bell’s argument.
The first proposal is theologically promising—if one accepts some kind of rigorous process metaphysics. Yet the question arises, as it has always done with Whiteheadian process thinking, whether it is compatible with Christian doctrine as it has been received. I’m not sure it is; Bell doesn’t suggest it; as such I can bracket this idea for another time.
The problem with the second proposal is that either it is total relativism, or the ‘revealed bounds’ as understood by the proponents tend to be suspiciously close to Western liberal values of autonomy and choice. Though there is a toleration of other cultural expressions of marriage and sexuality, there lurks an inward superiority complex. We can see this in a film like Eat Pray Love where, although the protagonist tolerates another character’s arranged marriage, it is presented as a tragic circumstance, a core of bitter sadness dressed in bright colours, dancing, and joyful music.
This leads to the third proposal: progressive revelation coincides with 21st Century British liberal culture. The problem here is that there lurks a cultural imperialism, akin to the arrogant Hegelian idealism embodied in pre-First World War Germany. There, the unfolding of the divine idea coincided with the cultural norms of the Second German Reich. This is not to say that progressive revelation ends with that culture, but rather that that culture is claimed to be the incarnational stream through which the Spirit makes revelation concrete. As far as I can see, no one is arguing that progressive revelation in matters of sexuality is happening through African Pentecostalism or even Indian Hinduism. This is convenient: God is revealing himself on this matter through the host culture of the proponent. Yet this is what Bell seems to be arguing for Western liberal values. The fact that he tries to back up his argument through the latest science strikes the dogmatic historian in me as a remarkable parallel to the pre-war German use of then-contemporary science to back up their own cultural norms.
This is why I think the most likely proposal is the fourth: something has gone wrong. In Part III of this review, I will be exploring that fourth proposal in more detail. In Part IV, I will also attempt to make an alternative suggestion to Bell’s in incorporating some of the scientific evidence he raises in his book. However, before we can reach there, we need to make an unfortunate detour in Part II.
Joshua Penduck is the Rector of Newcastle-under-Lyme, St Giles with St Thomas, Butterton, in the Diocese of Lichfield. Prior to ordination he was a composer and has written music for the LSO, BCMG and Orkest de Ereprijs. He is married to Shelley, who is also an Anglican minister in Stoke-on-Trent.